Contractors' Questions: Which are the steadiest IT contracts?

Contractor's Question:Which area of IT is the best for keeping in contract work but doesn't necessarily pay the best rate? I know a security contractor who finds it tough to get work but earns a lot, and a UNIX SA who doesn't get his '5[00 pounds] a day' but is never out of work.

Matt Collingwood is a manager at Adecco Group's Computer People, an IT recruitment agency:

As a starting point, it's worth considering which particular route you wish to pursue, whether that's a project-based or support-based role. Both of these offer different drivers in terms of time, resource and the skills they demand. Typically, support-based contracts are in place for an average 48 weeks, while project work comes in at around 22 weeks.

Within the IT industry these project-based roles tend to be more popular as they allow the contractor to take a 'hands-on' approach, giving them a chance to develop their skills further and inject some variety into their work.

In terms of consistent contract wins, understanding your strengths is crucial. Companies are always keen to hire contractors with a specialist skill set or technical ability, particularly in new and emerging technologies. Virtualisation, VMware, Citrix and the new Microsoft Dynamics business software are all areas crying out for skilled workers, not to mention the additional demand still in place for the traditional technologies such as .Net, ASP and Oracle.

Being able to combine this technical know-how with a strong understanding of the commercial business environment is one way to find yourself winning back-to-back contracts.

Gill Hunt is the founder of Skillfair, an online marketplace for consultants and contractors:

Based on feedback from clients and consultants on Skillfair it's not so much the role that matters as how well prepared the contractor is. In IT, but also in other areas, clients consistently pick people who take time to work out whether their skills really match the role, explain in their initial approach why they're a good fit and can then perform well at interview.

The best-paid IT candidates seem to be those who get work through referrals, they do such a good job for their clients that they're rarely short of work and can command higher rates than others with similar skills.

Things that really annoy our clients, and therefore won't result in repeat contracts, are people who don't come anywhere near the skill-set required but apply anyway, and people who send obviously generic e-mails/CVs and assume the client will figure out why they're a match.

Matt Smith is a director of Harvey Nash, an IT recruitment and services company:

In 2001; the time of the last downturn, the IT staff continually in work and winning contract extensions were those who were in Operations-related roles. Typically, these roles would be required by the business to serve the business on an ongoing basis.

Now there is similar economic nervousness, the same is true and project-based roles, in contrast, are more prone to being deferred, particularly if the project is more of a medium to long-term driver of growth for the business.

Whereas IT staff within a niche in Operations, such as a supporting SAP applications or an Exchange specialist, tend to be continually in work. However they are not normally the most highly paid.

As ever it's a balance down to the individual contractor to strike. If their IT skills suit transformational or change-type projects they will command a higher daily rate but, at the same time, those types of projects risk not being started because businesses are pausing to assess the state of the economy.

Overall I don't think the IT contract jobs market is by anyway as bad as it was in 2001/2002. Then, there were IT contractors with great interpersonal skills to complement their technical skills who were out of work for as long as 11 months. We are not seeing this in the slightest today. What we are finding is that candidates are still getting the roles they want, but are having a little more difficulty in actually securing them.

Friday 8th Aug 2008